Meat Industry Ireland (MII) is to consult its members on a range of concessions to beef farmers discussed during marathon talks which extended into the early hours of this morning.
The talks adjourned after 12 hours with some measures being agreed, while others have been referred for further consultation with the industry or further examination by state bodies.
While no firm deal is yet on the table, the outlines of a potential agreement have started to emerge, with a focus on the state stepping up to investigate some farmer’s claims, while the industry will consider concessions, cost reductions, and the sharing of more data with farmers.
MII will consult with its membership on allowing farmers more information around how carcasses are weighed after slaughter, and will also discuss the issue of factory agents working for more than one processor, which farmers object to.
Sources said the meat industry has agreed to drop a mandatory insurance payment charged to farmers, which varied by factory but came in at around €5 per head of cattle. The Department will also begin publishing maximum and minimum prices paid for cattle on a weekly basis, rather than only averages.
However, some sticking points remain, including a much-maligned bonus system which rewards farmers for bringing livestock in before they turn 30 months. Farmers say this creates a false pressure on the market and allows beef processors to pay less for a certain percentage of the herd when there is no evidence that consumers or retailers will pay a premium for younger beef.
This issue is to be referred to Bord Bia for further examination. The state body will approach retail customers of meat factories to investigate whether this is a requirement.
Mad Cow-era ban
Similarly, a Mad Cow-era ban on offal being transported more than 125 km will be reviewed by the Department after farmers objected to the rule and argued it was in favour of the large meat processors.
Issues around the price index and the grid system used by the sector are to be reviewed by Teagasc and the Department. The grid is a system which ranks cattle by the letters E, U, R, O and P, as well as fat stores under the numbers 1,2,3.
A good beef cow would be a U3 while a good dairy cow would be a P2.
The independent chairman Michael Dowling is to circulate a document based on the proposals that were put forward, according to a statement from the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA).
IFA President Joe Healy said last night some progress had been made on market transparency and the introduction of a price index.
He said there is also a commitment to look at the market specifications that impact on price that exist in the grid. It is expected that the talks will reconvene on Thursday or Monday next.
In a statement on Tuesday morning, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed noted the progress made overnight, thanked participants, and “urged continued constructive dialogue in the coming days”.
On Monday all sides set out their respective positions on prices paid to cattle producers by meat processors.
Members of the grassroots Beef Plan movement met representatives of the IFA, Meat Industry Ireland and Department of Agriculture, on Monday in a bid to find a settlement to the increasingly bitter dispute between farmers and processors over prices paid for cattle.
Pat McCormack of ICMSA said he is “pretty confident” of a positive outcome. He said Brexit is a massive unknown as UK is the largest market. Talks were “extremely tense” because of the financial pressures, he said.
Mr Healy said a document would be put together on the nature of the review of the grid and would be studied by all parties.
Mr Healy reiterated that farmers needed to know the Government response to Brexit, which he said should include about €1 billion in supports and direct aid.
During the round-table discussions at the Department of Agriculture’s Backweston Campus in Co Kildare, the Beef Plan movement put forward its case that beef processors and retailers got the largest share of the consumer price for beef.
This was against the background of processors and retailers handling cattle for a few days, they said, while farmers spent two years rearing cattle.
Members of Beef Plan have claimed that for every €10 of beef bought off shelves, the farmer takes €2, the processor gets €2.90, and the supermarket gets €5.10.
Mr Healy said beef farmers’ incomes were totally unsustainable and he quoted Teagasc National Farm Survey data for 2018 which showed cattle-rearing incomes at €8,813 on average.
He said “confidence, hope and viability have been destroyed by the factories and this has to change”.
Meat processors, represented by Meat Industry Ireland, had earlier said “real damage has been done to domestic and export business” as a result of the protests and it was “high time for the sector to get back to business”.
“Processing needs to take place if we are to avoid losing more customers for Irish beef and lamb,” it said.